SINGAPORE - An annual United States Navy-led humanitarian mission that provides aid to the Asia-Pacific sets sail for Sri Lanka on Thursday (March 2), the first time it is expanding its operations to South Asia.
The added scope of the mission - now in its 12th year - shows the US Navy's continued engagement in the region and desire to establish relations with more countries, said mission commander Captain Stanfield Chien on Wednesday.
"This is a demonstration of the commitment that we are in this region and we want to build those relationships and we want to be partners," he said on board the US naval ship Fall River, which is based in the US but is deployed routinely to the Asia-Pacific.
It is in Singapore for a resupply before embarking on the mission, which comprises 200 people from the US, Britain, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
The mission is taking place less than two months after US President Donald Trump took office on Jan 20. Since then, observers have questioned if the US would turn inward-looking and dial back its presence around the world.
When asked about the possibility, Captain Chien said the US Navy is actually applying more resources to the region, not less, though former US president Barack Obama - who championed a "strategic rebalance" to Asia - has left office.
"I don't think you're going to see the US Navy extract ourselves, we're going to maintain our presence if not grow it", said Captain Chien, whose father immigrated to the US from Taiwan at age 15.
The transport vessel - with 104 doctors, engineers, and other staff on board - will arrive in the Sri Lankan city of Hambantota early next week and spend two months there working on projects such as building a primary school and a women's clinic.
It will then spend another two months in various stops in Malaysia and Vietnam.
Another 100 people are flown directly to these three countries to prepare the groundwork before the arrival of the ship.
The humanitarian and disaster relief mission, named Pacific Partnership, was launched in 2006 in response to the catastrophic 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which was triggered by a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and killed more than 230,000.
It has evolved over the years from a focus on providing aid and relief to an emphasis on exchanging knowledge with host countries. For instance, medical and law enforcement training will be conducted this year.
Captain Chien said the Pacific Partnership allows emergency responders from different countries to build invaluable networks so they can work together seamlessly when disaster strikes.
"If something happens, it's not the first time we're talking. I can say, "Hi, remember we worked on this,' and that tends to facilitate things," he said.